Moral of my story: Don’t go see this on your own in an empty cinema.
What makes a horror film a horror film? In the past week or so I’ve heard both praise for this film and a good degree of backlash. Many felt that it wasn’t a horror film, that it wasn’t scary enough and that it was too slow. As a dedicated Wittertainee I’d heard Mark Kermode champion the film stating that ‘the greatest strength of The Witch –that the audience will see in what they want to see, or believe’ So, when a bit of free time opened up in my schedule I thought ‘why not?’ Even after three nights where by sleep has been haunted by a goat called Black Phillip I do not regret my decision, as The Witch is an immensely rich watch and an outstanding debut from its director and writer Robert Eggers.
In 1630 a farmer called William (Ralph Ineson) and his family are excommunicated from their New England community due to the crime of “prideful conceit”. He and wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) must raise their children away from the community they came with when they left England and now live in exile in a forest. They have five children – teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), on the cusp of adolescence Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), fraternal twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and new-born Samuel. One day, when Thomasin is looking after ber youngest sibling and playing a round of peek-a-boo, Samuel disappears. The family is utterly devastated and grief takes its toll, bringing tensions to the surface and testing both the love and loyalty of each of the family members. Is a supernatural force of evil haunting them or is it all imagined?
The greatest choice, of many, that this film makes is to show Samuel’s disappearance to the audience. The audience gets to see a witch, possibly the witch of the title or possibly not, drag poor little baby Samuel into the forest with her. The characters, however, do not get to see this. It’s a classic case of dramatic tension that is oh so effective – this comparatively small piece of information alters how we view the characters and makes us assess then repeatedly reassess what we are seeing. The knowing what actually happened to Samuel lets us watch the consequences with a layer of cynicism, as the family falls apart at the seams. How the dynamics of the family shift and tear creates a deeper level of both atmosphere and tension as we know something they do not. When the blame shifts to teenager Thomasin we automatically defend her. For her family she is the obvious target of blame, after all she was watching him when he disappeared, yet we know that she isn’t. Or is she? As the film plays out the audience is forced to question what they actually know, or if what they actually know is not the whole story.
All of the cast are fantastic, not a single weak link. Ineson is solid as the righteous father who may have let his ego take his family onto a path of destruction. Dickie is wonderful as the grieving mother who doesn’t know where to turn. Taylor-Joy is an extraordinary presence as a girl who has come of age, and how this very fact will change her life. The Witch is rich for cinematic analysis, most obviously the treatment young women which is seemingly reflective of how life would have been for someone of her age in 1630. Scrimshaw possess the kind of face and aura of someone who has lived a thousand lives, a real one-to-watch. The twins are as creepy as you would expect from a film of this sort. That just leaves us with the aforementioned Black Phillip. I’m even going to add a picture here of the beast, just to prove my point.
Look at him. Just look at him! I genuinely believe there should be a category added to the award ceremonies next year for, ‘scariest performance by an animal’ as Black Phillip would be a solid contender. At this point I’m not even going to tell you what he does, nor will I hint. I don’t think I could even describe it in a manner that would reflect in a succinct enough manner the terror this beast is capable of. Just like the rest of the film, he gets under-your-skin and into-your-brain.
The Witch is a spooky, slow-release terror that is well worth seeing. Few newcomers could create a film with this depth of atmosphere and tension. I already look forward to what Robert Eggers has to offer us next.